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Defence of legal aid is a battle for us all

The Government’s Green Paper on legal aid proposes a set of changes that will destroy this vital public service.

The paper proposes that advice and representation will no longer be available to all under civil legal aid. This includes most family and many housing cases, immigration, clinical negligence and education law. There are three main areas where it is being cut.

First, a key idea in the paper is that some cases are less deserving than others, depending on the situation. So immigration cases, other than asylum, are no longer to be funded because they supposedly involve people who have made a decision to travel.

There will be no assistance to bring partners and children from abroad, breaking up families; and vulnerable groups such as victims of human trafficking. are left out.

Second, the paper aims to restrict legal aid to cases where an individual’s life, liberty or home is threatened. So it will still be available in housing cases where there is a risk of homelessness, but entirely cut for disrepair cases.

This will mean tenants living with damp, mould and infestations cannot use the law to force their landlord to do repairs, at a time when Tory cuts mean a huge increase in privately rented, often sub-standard accommodation.

Finally, eligibility changes mean if you own a home or equity of more than a £8,000, you won’t qualify for legal aid. People who have savings between £1,000 and £8,000 will have to pay a £100 upfront, which means even benefit claimants will no longer be automatically entitled to legal aid.

All these issues will mean people are either put off bringing cases or have to make huge financial sacrifices to do so.

Legal Aid is overwhelmingly used by the poorest people in society. Being poor should not block access to the courts to challenge an injustice.

The ConDems claim the cuts are due to the budget deficit. But nothing is said about the huge sums spent on lawyers to represent central and local government departments!

Legal advice will still be available for those suspected of criminal offences. But fees are to be cut by 10 per cent across the board in civil and criminal cases. This will mean “advice deserts” in areas where all legal aid firms have gone out of business, and further wage cuts in a sector with an average salary of about £25,000 and much lower wages for unqualified assistants.

In place of legal aid, the government wants to move to services provided “pro bono” (voluntarily), perhaps by corporate lawyers in their spare time or students, and to reliance on NGOs and charities. Like other aspects of the Con-Dem “big society” this means a further move away from the idea of the state providing a good quality service for all.

What legal aid still exists will become increasingly marketised with firms bidding to provide services at the lowest possible rates, with no regard for quality. “Telephone only” advice, another proposal, would direct enquiries through a call centre with only the most complex cases referred to actual legal-aid solicitors.

Tory legal aid “reforms” are undermining rights to equal justice and are part of a comprehensive attack on the welfare state. Under capitalism, the law extends rights to each “equal” citizen – but does nothing to equalise the conditions between citizens. Denying access to justice is part and parcel of the Tory offensive. we need to resist it, and link our resistance to a challenge to the system of inequality itself.

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